BETHLEHEM — The Church of the Nativity’s leaky roof and windows are finally being repaired, thanks to a rare act of cooperation between the three major churches that share and maintain the church, built atop the traditional place of Jesus’ birth.
In August, officials of the Palestinian Authority and Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Apostolic Armenian Churches signed an agreement authorizing an Italian restoration company to fix the church, whose basilica was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian about 600 A.D.
The original Church of the Nativity, built in 330 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine, was mostly destroyed 200 years later. The existing church was built on the same site.
The structure has been leaking for more than a century, but turf battles between the Churches, each of which maintains its own section, prevented a proper resolution to the problem. Of most concern are the church’s wooden beams, some of which date back 1,500 years, according to Church officials.
Despite the repairs, which will take several months at the very least, the basilica is open to visitors and will welcome pilgrims for Christmas services. The church is the jewel in the crown of Bethlehem, which will host a variety of services, fairs and concerts during the days leading up to Christmas.
Palestinian Authority Assistance
Although the Israeli government had tried for years to foster an agreement between the three Churches to repair the church, it was not until the Palestinian Authority took the controversial step of asking UNESCO, the cultural wing of the United Nations, to designate the church an "endangered" world heritage site that the Churches signed off on the renovation.
And even then, it took the Palestinian Authority quite some time to finesse an agreement with the Churches and to secure the funding.
Roughly half of the project’s $2.6-million price tag will be borne by the Vatican, Russia and other nations, while the other half will be supported by sponsors and private funds raised by the Palestinian Authority.
At the time, Israel insisted that UNESCO’s 2012 designation of the church as "endangered" — a designation generally reserved for sites in imminent danger of destruction or collapse — was a political move intended to bolster Palestinian claims of sovereignty over the West Bank, whose final status has yet to be determined through negotiations.
It is the first site under Palestinian jurisdiction to be afforded heritage status.
At a press conference, Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and activist, called the church’s inclusion in the heritage site list "a welcome recognition by the international community of our historical and cultural rights in this land and our commitment to the protection and preservation of such significant Palestinian cultural and religious sites in spite of the Israeli occupation and all its prejudicial measures."
Israel, Ashrawi said, "is a belligerent occupant" and "a major threat to the safety and the responsible preservation of that important segment of human civilization in Palestine."
The church has been on the World Monuments Fund’s "globally endangered heritage site" list since 2008. The fund noted that "the roof timbers of the church are rotting and have not been replaced since the 19th century. Rainwater seeps into the building and damages not only its structural elements, but also its 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings. Due to this influx of water, there is also an ever-present chance of an electrical short-circuit and fire."
According to Vatican Insider, the company Piacenti Spa was chosen to carry out the work due to its vast experience in large-scale restoration work.
"While the Middle East is on fire, while in one place and another churches burn and mosques are destroyed, we here are doing the opposite. Muslims and Christians are acting together to preserve a historic patrimony, but also a place of faith for millions of believers throughout the world," Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the custos of the Holy Land, told Vatican Insider. On behalf of the Catholic Church, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land maintains hundreds of Church properties.
The church "is not just a national monument, but an important site in the daily life of millions of believers around the world," Father Pizzaballa said, explaining why funding is coming from so many different sources.
Archbishop Aris Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem told the Register that the "Palestinian Authority has undertaken the responsibility of collecting the funds, and anyone is welcome to donate, any churches, any individuals and nonprofit organizations. The Nativity church belongs, in principle, to all Christians and also non-Christians as a holy site."
"We at the [Latin] patriarchate are happy the repairs are being carried out," Archbishop Willliam Shomali, auxiliary bishop and patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine, said in an interview. "The Churches responsible for the roof were not able to work together, so the Palestinian government took this initiative on its own responsibility. They obtained the approval of the three Churches, and now the work is ongoing."
Michele Chabin is based in Jerusalem.